How long does it REALLY take to learn Spanish?
- “Ummm, well it depends on a lot of different factors…”
- “It’ll take you just 10 days with our secret method! Learn while you sleep!”
- “You need study 30 hours a week for 5 years”
Everywhere you look, you’ll find answers to this question that are either unhelpful, exaggerated, or downright misleading.
I’m going provide a definitive answer to this question once and for all, as well as demystify some of the conflicting opinions you may have heard or read on this subject.
But first, we need to agree on the following:
The definition of fluency
When you say you want to learn Spanish, then I assume you want to eventually become fluent.
Everyone seems to have their own definition of what fluency really means, but it can generally be boiled down to two different levels:
- You can understand about 95% of what you hear or read about everyday topics. For more complex or technical subjects, you don’t understand as much but you can still get the gist of what’s going on.
- You can comfortably hold a 1-on-1 conversation at a normal speaking pace and you can usually get your ideas across regarding a variety of topics without having to repeat yourself or stop to think too much.
- Your pronunciation is clear and accurate, and you’re easily understood by native speakers.
- You can understand 99-100% of anything you hear or read, regardless of subject matter. This includes all jokes and cultural expressions.
- You can express yourself spontaneously and precisely in complex situations involving groups of native speakers. You can accurately communicate emotions and subtle shades of meaning.
- Your pronunciation is perfect. You can hold a 2-hour conversation with a native speaker and afterwards they wouldn’t be able to tell that you didn’t learn the language from birth.
In my opinion, the majority of people wanting to learn Spanish should aim for “conversational fluency” because it is very achievable for everyone.
Conversational fluency allows you to enjoy most of the benefits of knowing how to speak Spanish, like being able to travel with confidence to a Spanish-speaking country, communicating with a loved one, or using Spanish in a work setting.
Frankly, most people are never going to reach “native-level fluency” because it takes exponentially more work to get there, and the added benefits of which may not be worth it.
Best-selling author and polyglot Tim Ferris puts it this way:
“To understand 95% of a language and become conversationally fluent may require months of applied learning; to reach the 98% threshold could require 10 years. There is a point of diminishing returns where, for most people, it makes more sense to acquire more languages (or other skills) vs. add a 1% improvement per 5 years.” – Tim Ferris
Of course, there is nothing wrong with trying to become fluent at a native level. But as a beginner, aiming for a more achievable goal puts less pressure on yourself and can save you a lot of frustration.
So when it comes to the question of how long does it take to learn Spanish, we’re talking about becoming conversationally fluent.
What the snake oil salesmen will tell you
Nowadays there is an endless array of apps, software, and courses that claim to teach you Spanish in days or weeks. Many of them claim to be “science-backed” and offer plenty of convincing testimonials to convince you that they are the real deal.
But at the end of the day, these wild claims are just their way of hooking you in. If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.
(…all you have to do is take our magic pill!)
So what’s the harm in exaggerating a bit in order to get people started?
The problem is that people will start using the app or software, and inevitably won’t improve as fast as they thought they would. They’ll compare themselves against the results promised by the program, and ask, “Why am I not getting this?”
When this happens, many people will end up blaming themselves. This leads to a loss of confidence that can manifest itself in various harmful ways.
Some people will give up learning Spanish all together and will NEVER pick it up again. According to them, they’ve tried it and failed, and may even believe that they’re just not cut out for languages.
This is a shame because in reality, it’s the program and the unrealistic expectations they’ve been fed that are to blame.
What the out-of-touch experts will tell you
There are a number of government organizations that have also weighed in on how long it takes to learn Spanish.
By far the most popular, widely quoted opinion is from the U.S. Foreign Services Institute (FSI).
According to an FSI study, it should take 600 classroom hours to achieve conversational fluency in Spanish. Furthermore, they suggest an approximate 1:1 ratio between time spent in the classroom, and time spent studying independently (most people miss this part).
Therefore, the total time spent will actually be around 1,200 hours! (If that seems like a lot, it is!)
Now, assuming you’re enrolled in a typical college Spanish class that runs 3-hours per week, that means it will take you 4-years to learn Spanish!
I call bullshit.
Believing a statistic like this is just as damaging to language learners as the unrealistic promises we talked about earlier.
One of the most important things for a beginner is to start learning Spanish with a positive, confident mindset.
However, figures like the 1,200 hours quoted by FSI paints the goal of learning Spanish as a daunting, massive undertaking. Rather than doing people a favor by telling them what to expect, it intimidates and discourages them from wanting to pick up Spanish in the first place.
Learning Spanish isn’t a walk in the park, but it is not nearly as difficult as the FSI is making it out to be.
Why they’re dead wrong
The FSI’s answer to how long it takes to learn Spanish, is based on classroom hours. The problem is, the traditional classroom is one of the least effective ways to learn.
In a group Spanish class, you have one teacher lecturing 20-30 students. In a 3-hour class, each student might only get 10 minutes of actual speaking practice. Also, the class moves only as quickly as the weakest student, so you may find the pace of learning much slower than what you’re capable of.
In contrast, if you’re taking part in 1-on-1 conversation practice, you’ll probably get to speak for 30 minutes of every hour. In a classroom, you can hide in the back and passively listen to a lecture. But when it’s just you and your conversation partner or Spanish teacher, you are actively learning the entire time.
According to research from the NTL Institute, people remember much more information if they are learning it actively:
In other words, if you’re focusing on having conversations (practice doing / immediate use), you could be learning up to 15-18 times more efficiently than in a traditional classroom (lecture).
By concentrating on the most efficient ways to learn Spanish rather than the slow, outdated methods recommended by the FSI, you will be able to learn in a fraction of the time.
Fluency isn’t an exam
Most organizations measure fluency on the basis of reaching a certain academic level or obtaining a certification. So when the FSI says it takes 1,200 hours to learn Spanish, they’re really talking about passing a Spanish exam.
Even the most popular software and apps use this as a benchmark. Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, and Babbel have all funded their own studies claiming that their app can help you cover the requirements of one college semester of Spanish.
Now there’s nothing wrong with trying to learn Spanish for academic reasons, but there are many people who have passed a test, or have received a Spanish certification, but can’t actually speak Spanish with confidence.
The truth is, the vast majority of people want to learn Spanish for REAL LIFE. They want to speak with and understand REAL PEOPLE, not just fill-in-the-blanks on a test paper.
As you can see, there is a gigantic disconnect between how languages are taught, and the results that people are looking for when they decide to pick up a new language.
So if you want to learn Spanish for the real world, then you should devote as much time as possible to learning via real human interaction.
Intensity vs. Consistency
Let’s say you decide to go all-in on Spanish. You quit your job, fly off to Guatemala and enroll in an intensive 4-week Spanish course. You study for 5 hours a day until your brain turns into mush. You come home having nearly reached the conversationally fluent level.
But then what happens?
You settle back into normal life, you all of a sudden have other commitments, there are fewer opportunities to practice, and your Spanish starts to regress. This is an example of high intensity, low consistency learning.
When you can’t maintain a high level of intensity, you’ll forget what you learned very quickly, because your memory follows a decay curve and it needs to be reinforced regularly. That’s why after cramming for a college exam, most students feel like they’ve forgotten everything after just a few days.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who have been learning Spanish for years. They spend 5-10 minutes a day with a free language app, and then maybe once every few weeks they go to a Spanish meetup in their city. They’ve doing this for 3-4 years and are barely conversational.
This is an example of low intensity, high consistency learning. Since the intensity is low, it’s not difficult to keep that up week after week. However, progress is extremely slow and sometimes this can cause people to give up altogether.
Like many things, there is a nice middle ground that you can shoot for. In my opinion that “sweet spot” is about 1 hour per day of learning time.
Most of us lead busy lives with work, school, family and social obligations taking up much of our time. Yet we should try to learn Spanish with a moderate level of intensity, because few people have the patience to wait 4 years or more to learn a language.
If you can dedicate more than 1 hour a day, then that’s fantastic, but the more time you spend, the more difficult it will be to maintain that pace consistently.
If this sounds like too much of a commitment to you, then ask yourself, are you busy for the sake of being busy? Most people waste a lot more time than they realize, and occupy themselves with “activities” that keep them busy but don’t accomplish what’s truly important to them. Freeing up an hour a day isn’t as hard as you think.
The bottom line
If you start out as a beginner and spend an average of 1 hour per day working on your Spanish, you should able to reach conversational fluency within 8 – 12 months. That translates to roughly 250 – 350 hours of time spent.
This assumes that you are taking lessons with a Spanish teacher at least 2 times per week, and spending the remaining time doing homework, and reviewing what you learned. This is by far the most efficient way to learn Spanish. For example, someone learning with Verbalicity might have a schedule that looks like this:
- Monday: Lesson from 8:00 – 9:00 PM, after dinner
- Thursday: Lesson from 7:00 – 8:00 AM, before heading off to work
- Saturday: Spend the morning doing homework assigned by your teacher, with a cup of coffee
- Every day: 10-15 minutes of vocabulary practice with a flash card app
This learning plan averages out to about 1 hour a day and should fit into anyone’s schedule, whether you’re a busy professional, or full-time student.
If you want to learn on your own without a teacher, then that’s perfectly fine too. You’ll just need to make sure you get enough conversation practice via language exchanges or meetups, and be very disciplined about studying on your own. It will take a lot more time than if you were learning with a teacher, but it is still possible to become fluent within 1 year.
I’ve created a road map that guides you through the process of going from zero to conversationally fluent. It is part of our free guide on the Best Way to Learn Spanish for Beginners.
So how long does it take to learn Spanish? It won’t happen overnight, but it also won’t take as long as you think.
How to Learn Spanish in 6 Weeks(or any other language)
I had never studied Spanish before. My parents made me learn German in my primary school and I chose French later on, so pretty much the only Spanish phrases I knew were: “Hola, como estas?” and “Gracias”. After graduating from my university, I got an internship in Mendoza, Argentina. The internship I got was supposed to be at an English speaking wine magazine, but once I arrived it turned out that I was supposed to speak Spanish. Oops.
Mendoza is quite a touristy place, where travelers come to see wineries, do whitewater rafting and hike in the mountains. Hostel owners and tour guides obviously speak English. But since I got there for work, I was living with a host family and hang out in local areas where apart from tourists noone spoke ANY English.
My host family didn’t even know simple English words. I was terrified. Every time I wanted to ask them for anything I had to go to my room, compose the sentence with a dictionary, and come back to recite what I had learned.
I had to come up with a backup plan. The company agreed to send me to a Spanish course at the local language school for 3 weeks, and come back to work for them afterward.
My Method of Learning Spanish
Because the Spanish course was only 3 weeks, I had to make the most of it. Luckily for me, there were no other beginners, so my classes had to be individual ones. However, even with a private tutor, nothing is guaranteed. If I waited for my teacher to tell me what to do, I’d have finished the course knowing basic grammar and not much vocabulary.
Before I even started the course, I equipped myself with some Spanish coursebooks. I’ve learned basics myself, not to waste time in class. Because if I can learn some things myself, why would I pay for someone else to tell me the same thing?
For Spanish, French, Arabic, and Italian, I used ‘Language in 3 Months’ books by PONS, however, I realized that they aren’t available in English (just German and Polish). Therefore, I’d recommend Living Language book series.
Every day after my class I was researching and studying all necessary vocabulary and grammar, so I could discuss it with the teacher the next day. I created sections of: Useful words (‘because’, ‘but’, ‘then’, ‘why’, .etc), food, animals, household, and words that I’d need, wrote down all words I could find, and studied each chapter every day.
Based on the book my teacher has chosen for me, I studied grammar sections at home as well.
This way, in class, I was able to ask my teacher what was unclear from the grammar section and practice words I’ve learned at home, instead of waiting for her to show me everything that was written in the book.
Every afternoon I read some bilingual books from the local library and watched tons of Argentinian TV. There are a lot of brilliant books that are written in a way you can understand, with an English translation on another page. Here are some examples: Spanish Short Stories 1, Spanish Short Stories 2, but believe me – there are plenty of other dual-language books.
After only 3 weeks, I had to actually start working and using my Spanish skills. It wasn’t easy and I struggled a lot, especially because I had to interview a lot of native Spanish speakers, but it was manageable. I simply practiced what I’ve learned.
Whether I liked it or not, I was also forced to use my Spanish everywhere I went in Mendoza. I’ll never forget when I went to the pharmacy to get some bandages but I didn’t know the word, so I had to pantomime it. I must have looked no better than Bridget Jones at the Austrian ski resort, but what could I do? I had to go shopping, I had to organize things for myself, and I had to interact with the local community.
I finished my internship after 7 weeks and flew to Mexico. Upon arrival, I could freely speak to my Mexican friends in Spanish. We were all surprised how quickly I learned Spanish, but it just goes to show that a lot of work and having a good system pays off.
Here is my advice for people who want to learn Spanish or any other language incredibly quickly:
Going somewhere where you won’t be able to communicate with anyone isn’t easy. In the beginning, you’ll end up being frustrated most of the time. You must consciously lock yourself outside your comfort zone and not allow yourself to step back inside it for a while. But after all, you’ll thank yourself for this decision.
You don’t have to be in a place where country where it’s a native language. Not learning a language because of the reason that you can’t visit a place where it’s spoken is an excuse. Breathing the air of Argentina wouldn’t make me learn Spanish and many foreigners living abroad never learn a local language.
Technology makes everything possible these days. Stream some movies, download podcasts, books, do anything to have contact with the language. There’s even a plugin for Chrome that can translate some parts of a text that you’d normally read in English.
Yes, seriously. Many languages have words that share a common (Greek/Latin or other) root. They can be spelled slightly differently, but that you’d have to try hard not to recognize.
I’ve studied Latin in college with a very strict teacher, and as useless as it seemed, it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done. Thanks to Latin, understanding its grammar structure and origin of many words, learning any foreign language is now easier. I’ll totally introduce my kids to Latin early on.
Fluency and accuracy are two different things. When I lived in Italy, I became fluent in Italian, but far from being accurate. Speaking from experience, it’s better to be fluent at first and apply accuracy later. I might not have been always accurate in Italian, but at least I can speak. While in German, I’m VERY accurate when it comes to usage of grammar and vocabulary, but I would never say that I’m fluent because my vocabulary is quite limited.
Most people are usually afraid of looking stupid and don’t even try to speak the foreign language until they’re sure of their skills. That’s the biggest mistake you can make. Talk, make mistakes, and ask people to correct you. But learn words first, before you master your grammar.
Embrace your mistakes. For a very long time, I kept saying ‘mis cumpleaños’ instead of ‘mi cumpleaños’ what made my friends laugh at me that I have more than one birthday. Remember that many native English speakers can’t even speak or spell in English properly, so you learning another language is an achievement already.
Group classes might be fun, but they won’t teach you as much as individual classes. Also, take advantage of the fact that the teacher is there for you. Ask questions about things you’re unsure of.
It doesn’t necessarily mean always paying for an expensive course. These days, there are plenty of language exchanges online. You can learn through Skype. My favorite site for finding natives is italki.com, with prices starting from $5 per hour.
As you can see in my Mexican dictionary, there are many differences between Spanish spoken in, for example, Mexico and Argentina. Most of the recordings in popular courses you’re listening to online aren’t real life situations. In reality, people speak much faster in their own vernacular and that’s where your native speaker can help.
For language courses abroad I recommend either IH (International House Organization) or EF. I have a first-hand experience with both places and can vouch for them being legit.
Remember, every new language is easier to learn. If your first language is English, learning a new language might be harder than if you were let’s say, French or German speaker. English basic grammar is less complex, so acquiring new rules might be challenging at first. Don’t give up!